In 1376, the Lords and Commons of England gathered at Westminster Palace to attend the first Parliament held in almost three years, with the intention to reform what they considered to be a corrupt government; this would later be called the ‘Good Parliament’ and would alter the political landscape thereafter, giving the Commons significantly more gravitas. At 62 the king, Edward III, was approaching the end of his reign and had largely retired from politics. The war with France was – for a time- dormant, but the domestic atmosphere was fraught. The financial repercussions of the king’s pursuits in France had become widely felt, but he was yet to hear the complaints of the Commons who endured the weight of the corruption at the heart of the king’s coterie. As preparations for Parliament began, Edward III, though in ill health, and preoccupied with his mistress Alice Perrers, was eager to make himself scarce. The Lords and Commons gathered at Westminster with a catalogue of grievances to put to the king, but were surprised to find another member of the royal family seated in his place: his son, John of Gaunt. The Good Parliament episode marked John of Gaunt’s presence as a controversial, but key player in court politics. In William Langland’s contemporary allegory, Piers Plowman, Gaunt is described as a devious “cat of the court”.
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster was the third surviving son of Edward III. Of all of Edward’s offspring, he was the most loyal to his father’s interests and the most ambitious, titling himself King of Castile and Léon- a significant territory in Spain that was currently under the rule of the Trastámaran king Enrique. After a period of civil war in Spain between step-brothers, Enrique and Pedro the Cruel, which ended in fratricide with the death of Pedro, Gaunt diplomatically married Pedro’s eldest daughter, Constance, in 1371. Through her, he claimed the throne with the intention to extend English power into Spain, which was a continuation of Edward III’s ambitious continental policy. However, John of Gaunt was already an influential prince. In 1359 he married Blanche of Lancaster (who died in 1368), the daughter of Henry Duke of Lancaster. This marriage was lucrative for through Blanche he inherited vast Lancastrian wealth and territory, a portion of which Henry had accumulated during the French war. With lands and castles from Bergerac to Pontefract, Gaunt’s new found wealth was vast and his influence extensive.
By 1376, John of Gaunt had become an asset to his father. He was a loyal, amenable, and skilled diplomat and politician. When Edward’s eldest son and heir, the Black Prince, returned from Aquitaine crippled with a terminal illness, the king looked to Gaunt to take on the lion’s share of royal duty. In Parliament, he was the natural representative to defend the interests of the Crown, and was delegated the thankless task of overseeing the most complicated, fractious parliament in his lifetime. Gaunt, loyal to his family, became increasingly unpopular as he attempted to broker the accusations and requests of the Commons without jeopardising his father’s authority. The result was an initial victory for the Commons, which was to be revoked six months later when Gaunt fecklessly reversed the outcome. He re-installed corrupt officials who had been siphoning money from the treasury to fill their own pockets and, to the horror of the contemporary chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, permitted “the unscrupulous whore” Alice Perrers, the king’s mistress to return to his bedside.
The events of the Good Parliament accounted for Gaunt’s future unpopularity in London. His doggedly royalist beliefs and protectionist attitude over the actions of his father- and Crown authority thereafter- made him enemies. However, with Edward III’s death in 1377, the reign of Richard II began. Richard was the Black Prince’s heir, who ascended the throne at twelve and was unable to rule in his own right. Despite previous protocol on the succession of a child king, John of Gaunt was never elected as an official regent; instead, Richard was assigned a ‘continual council’ and Gaunt oversaw the process of his ascension and coronation, swearing on bended knee that he was loyal to the new king. The fact that he was not granted the regency demonstrates how much of a threat Gaunt was considered to be at this stage in English politics: He had extensive lands, which generated extensive wealth, and he was a prince who already called himself ‘king’. Gaunt was simply too powerful and too close to the throne by blood right to be given the position of regent. Equally, he was incredibly unpopular: his continental and displaced Spanish court was confusing, as was the way he styled himself King of Castile yet did not rule in Castile. He was a king, yet he was not, and circled the throne of England with only a boy in his way.
Despite the resounding suspicion of Gaunt, he did not want the English crown for himself. He swore on the death bed of his brother that he would protect Richard’s kingship and Gaunt- for his arrogance and sense of superiority- was wholly loyal and dutiful to his end. However, throughout Richard’s reign, his loyalty was tested continuously and Gaunt faced constant antagonism from the king’s inner circle of advisors, determined to condemn him as a traitor and mitigate his authority.
In Richard’s early reign, Gaunt was able to exercise his dominance to his own benefit. His loyalty lay with the king, but he profited from his position as the ‘powerful uncle’. He formed a court at the Savoy Palace packed with Spanish members of his household, loyal to his cause. He funnelled huge sums into various building projects across his extensive lands and audaciously continued a very public relationship with his mistress, Katherine Swynford, even persuading the king to grant her land and property. He also began to extend his influence into the City, which was largely controlled by the merchant guilds whose influence at court was powerful. Gaunt sought to attenuate the gravitas of the merchant leaders by backing an alternative mayoral candidate- a man he could control- and was even rumoured to try and move the merchant capital to Southampton, which would inevitably destroy the remunerative trade in the City.
By 1381, Gaunt’s unpopularity in the City came to a head in the Peasants’ Revolt. As the rebels from Essex and Kent stormed London, local rebels broke into the Savoy Palace, destroying everything inside and eventually, the palace itself. They chanted through the streets of London, “we will have no king named John!” Fortunately for John of Gaunt, he was not in London at the time of the Revolt, but negotiating with the Scots in Berwick-on-Tweed. In Gaunt’s absence, Richard came into his own and began to exercise his kingship to brutal lengths. He disbanded the rebels at Mile End, and ordered that their leaders be executed despite having promised to acknowledge their grievances.
By this point, rumours of a large army intent on murdering Gaunt had reached him at Berwick. With no news from the king, John of Gaunt was suddenly powerless and in fear for his life. Did he have crown protection, or was he a fugitive? His initial response was to ride to the Earl of Northumberland at Alnwick for aid. Controversially and shockingly, the Earl refused to help him and Gaunt, humiliated, was forced to turn back and seek the mercy and protection of the Scots, whom he had previously been negotiating with. Meanwhile, Richard had sanctioned a brutal pacification of the rebels throughout the country, particularly in Essex, before finally writing to his uncle in Scotland to reassure him of the situation in the realm – it was as if he deliberately left Gaunt in the dark. Richard’s emerging sense of authority, viciousness, self-importance and manipulative politics was a dangerous aspect of his personality that would eventually result in his downfall.
Following the upheaval, Gaunt and Richard were reunited in Reading in the autumn of 1381, and it was soon clear that the power balance had shifted in Richard’s favour. Despite Gaunt’s cool diplomacy, clear head and duty to his nephew, Richard began to test his patience. As Richard grew into his kingship, he developed clear favourites at court, particularly the social climbing, power hungry Robert de Vere, who alienated the king from his royal uncles. In 1385, word reached Gaunt of an assassination plot against him, sanctioned by the king. After enduring Richard’s petulant and spoiled behaviour for years, Gaunt determined to make an example of the king by confronting and humiliating him in front of the entire court at Sheen Palace in Richmond. On a cold February night, Gaunt secretly took a boat upriver under the cover of darkness with a small armed guard and entered the palace alone to confront the king, as he dined with the very lords that plotted his death. The plan worked. Richard desperately pleaded with his uncle and was even forced by his mother, Joan of Kent, to formally apologise. However, despite Gaunt’s brave intervention, he wore a breastplate the entire time, anticipating his own murder.
By the following year, the relationship between Gaunt and Richard had wholly soured. John of Gaunt was finally given the go ahead to launch a campaign into Castile and claim the throne from the Trastámarans. In April 1386, Richard gave Gaunt a golden crown and formally proclaimed him King of Castile and Léon, desperate to be rid of his uncle. Gaunt set sail from Plymouth in the hope that he could establish his own court in Spain, realising the continental ambition of his father. His grand plan failed dismally and within two years he returned to England depleted and demoralised, with some of his most loyal and loved men dead from a sickness that ravaged his army, parched in the hot Spanish sun. He finally relinquished his title of King of Castile and Léon and after the death of his wife, Constance, quietly married his long-term mistress, Katherine Swynford, legitimising his children by her, titling them ‘Beaufort’.
Over the next decade, Richard’s tyrannical behaviour became unbearable and Gaunt had little power over the increasingly volatile king. In 1388 Gaunt’s son and heir, Henry of Bolingbroke was exiled by Richard, who would later attempt to claim the Lancastrian inheritance for himself.
Gaunt died at Leicester Castle in 1399 at the height of Richard’s tyranny and shortly before his deposition. To his end, Gaunt remained mistrustful but loyal to Richard, despite the fact his son was in exile and his vision for a powerful, united royal dynasty was never realised in the Ricardian years. After Gaunt’s death, his son and heir, Henry, invaded England and overthrew Richard, imprisoning him in Pontefract Castle and claiming the throne for himself. He became the first Lancastrian king as Henry IV, forging a new line of succession that would re-ignite the Hundred Years War and end in the murder of his grandson Henry VI in the Cousins’ War. However, after a period of civil war between York and Lancaster, Gaunt’s dynasty was realised through another line, the Beauforts. Through Margaret Beaufort, the matriarch of the Tudor dynasty and Gaunt’s great-granddaughter, his dynastic significance was solidified in perpetuity.
Helen Carr is a medieval historian, writer and documentary history producer. Helen is a regular features writer for BBC History Magazine and has contributed to the New Statesman and History Extra and runs her own podcast, Hidden Histories. The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster is her first book.
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